Alex Haley once wrote: "In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage—to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning and the most disquieting loneliness." And so it was with Frances Susanne Brown. She was happily married, had children, and a full life, yet she couldn't pinpoint what caused the sense that something was missing.
On a morning commute, she had an epiphany when she spied a winter-ravaged tree. As she wrote: "Half of the tree's usual symmetry was gone, carved out as though a hungry giant had plundered through and taken a bite. That lovely May morning in 2009, more than halfway through my life, I finally recognized what was missing. I was half a tree."
Those who know their ancestry are indeed fortunate. But many of us, like Frances, have gaps in our family history, or the history may be largely unknown. She knew a great deal about her father's side of the family tree, but her mother's side was nearly blank. In Maternal Threads, Frances tells the story of how she set out to fill in those huge gaps, saying: "How could I possibly feel whole if my mother either didn't know her own family history, or was hiding some dark secret about it? The lack of details, the subtle smudging over of my maternal history, was responsible for my feeling of being incomplete."
As a child and youth, whenever she asked questions, her mother was either reluctant to discuss her family or gave vague answers. The only one of her maternal relatives Frances knew was her Aunt Charlotte, the older half-sister who had raised her mother after the death of their parents. And by the time Frances launched her search for the maternal side of her family, even Charlotte had died.
It was like a puzzle with most of the pieces missing. And as she began to piece together the few she had, she found even they didn't fit. Every avenue she pursued seemed to be a dead end until she stumbled onto the possibility that her grandfather's name had been misspelled. Suddenly, thanks to a typo, she found a clue, and that led to more and more clues.
As her search progressed, she learned that much of what she'd been told were fabrications or half-truths. But as more pieces began to fall into place, she was able to figure out a truer version of her mother's and Charlotte's lives which, in turn, helped her to better understand herself and her own daughter, who was more like Charlotte than either she or her mother.
Frances was also able to come to terms with the disconnect between how she had perceived her mother, as a child, then as an adult looking back. She gained a better understanding of her mother's struggles, and why she kept so much of her history hidden. Today, although her family tree is not fully symetrical, it has become more balanced. She no longer feels like half a tree—she feels whole.
From the very first paragraph, Frances drew me into her personal story, only in my case it is my father's side of the family tree that is sparse. Maternal Threads is well-written and tells a fascinating story with which many of us can identify. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in exploring their own ancestry and how those ancestors may have influenced their own identity, or in preserving the "tenuous threads" that connect the generations and the importance of preserving those ties for future generations.
Read an excerpt from this book.
A native New Yorker, Frances Susanne Brown is a multi-published author of both nonfiction and fiction, including personal essays, historical magazine features, short stories, and novels. She also blogs about everyday experiences.
She received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from the New York Institute of Technology, and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from Lesley University. It was her thesis for her degree that led to writing the book Maternal Threads. Visit her website.
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